The Ballad of Gay Tony
The player takes on the role of Luis Lopez, the Dominican-American bodyguard and business partner of Gay Tony, Liberty City's number one nightclub owner. Tony owns both Hercules and Maisonette 9 - respectively the hottest gay and straight clubs in town - but his personal life is in tatters. He's a hopeless, drug-addled mess, surrounded by leeches and hanger-ons, and he owes vast sums of money to two separate sets of gangsters.
It's a typical GTA setup, with a violent but otherwise intelligent antihero surrounded by a cast of incompetent lunatics. However, in a serious departure from the adventures of Niko Bellic and Johnny Klebitz, TBoGT seems hell-bent on serving up ludicrously over-the-top scenarios with every mission. Some 10 minutes into the game you'll be racing across town in a golf cart as angry mobsters give hot pursuit; later on you'll find yourself climbing to the top of a Space Needle-like tower, gunning down police choppers with a shotgun that fires exploding shells. Later still you'll enter a race that starts with the participants jumping out of a helicopter; you'll parachute right into the cockpit of an awaiting speedboat, tear across the waves, and eventually transfer to a juiced-up race car that features a screen-blurring turbo boost.
For the most part there is very little filler in terms of mission design, and the campaign is jam-packed with wild set pieces. On occasion the chaos seems to be almost too much for the game's ageing engine, resulting in a noticeable drop in frame-rate, but thankfully this never becomes a serious problem. The action here is also notably harder than GTA IV, to an even greater extent than was the case with The Lost and Damned, but it's all so much fun that you're unlikely to be too bothered about the odd restart. As with TLaD, there's a smart checkpoint system to skip you past the bits you've already done; there's still the minor hassle of having to re-arm before returning to the fray, but thankfully you can call one of Luis' buddies to get weapons and armour delivered on demand.
Outside of the main plot there's also a generous selection of side attractions. There's a golfing mini-game, an underground fight club to bet on or take part in, and the aforementioned multi-vehicle racing. There's also a base-jumping mini-game built around the new parachute mechanics, allowing you to take part in 20 jumps at locations dotted around the city. The controls here feel like an update on Nintendo's classic Pilot Wings series, allowing you to steer your descent by shifting your weight and using air-brakes.
In a further bid to make TBoGT feel a bit different to previous GTA offerings, Rockstar has thrown in a set of simple diversions at Tony's clubs. You can shake your tail feather on the dancefloor (a simple rhythm game), join a champagne drinking competition (which involves rapidly rotating the right thumbstick), or go on management duty - a job that requires little more than walking around the club to keep an eye out for trouble.
It's also worth pointing out that there's a lot of sex in these club-based activities, and indeed in the game as a whole. The first time you go for a dance, you'll end up banging a girl called Tami in the toilets; she'll subsequently hit you up for booty calls from time to time, (although this happens far less often than was the case with the girlfriends in GTA IV). One of your female colleagues at Maisonette 9 has a habit of calling you into her office for a "special reward", and several of the missions find Luis hammering away at some lucky lady's fairy garden.
Surprisingly, the game doesn't make a big deal of its gay characters. Compared to the borderline cliché of GTA IV's Florian - who was nonetheless likeable - Tony himself is a restrained creation. He's a classic GTA screw-up who just happens to be gay. I'd hesitate to call TBoGT progressive, but it's still refreshing to see a game feature a normal homosexual character... well, as normal as a drug-addled corrupt club owner can be.
Unfortunately, Luis is a significantly less interesting protagonist than Niko, or even Johhny Klebitz. You warm to him with time, but he's never as engaging as the better characters in this episode: Tony, the excellent Yusuf, and Mori - the hyper-annoying brother of Brucie Kibbutz. Rockstar does its best to set up some tension between Luis' high-roller lifestyle and his past in Algonquin's housing projects, but we never care enough. It doesn't help that Luis' old homeboys, the dealer-duo Henrique and Armando, are an irritating pair of sods - although they do at least offer yet another set of decent side-missions based around drug wars.
Still, TBoGT's narrative arc is satisfying - especially in the many moments where Luis' path intersects with the adventures of Niko and Johnny. Perhaps more importantly, the Scottish developer has finally implemented a system which allows players to re-visit missions they've finished. Once you've finished the main storyline, which should take you a good eight to 10 hours, you'll be able to go back to any past assignment you like. Each mission now has four secondary goals, ranging from completion times to a required number of headshots, and if you meet these targets you'll be able to compete against other gamers via the Rockstar Social Club.
Little has changed under the hood since the original GTA 4 and the Xbox 360 release of the episodes. The frame rate and pop in issues are still present, but the city is created so brilliantly that these problems soon fade into the distance. Unlike other open-city games, in GTA 4 you get a real sense of the city being alive - whether it's just a guy selling hotdogs on the street or NPCs getting into random fights. Rockstar has included a new grain filter in The Lost and Damned, which is on by default. To our eyes this added to the atmosphere really well, but it can be turned off if it's not to your taste.
The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony would be worth buying as standalone games, so as sub £15 downloads they're essential purchases, while the two together for under £30 if you shop online is a real bargain. PS3 owners can finally get their hands on what is the finest example of DLC we've seen to date.